He’d found the other men on a sticky June morning outside Independence’s pharmaceutical enclave. Sam imagined the work of necromancers and alchemists went on behind their doors. The wagon was loaded with four chests, all locked heavily with iron. The locks were filled with wax, and the keys were in another wagon which had already gone a month earlier to Red Junction. There were short and long firearms provided for each man, and ample ammunition for defense and hunting. Blankets, cookware and an ax–all provided. Sam brought on his person the long, bone-handled filleting knife his uncle had gifted him upon passing. He had a change of clothes and both his eyes.
The other men were of motley stock: Geoff Sindenburg, an enforcer of some infamy around town, for his method of removing rowdies from establishments of his employ. His persuasion was said to be sold with the heavy end of a sledge, and the repeat trespasser reported to exit the saloon with a crack in their head rivaling that of their ass.
There was also Truman Oliver, former rifleman of the Queen, aim unparalleled and a well known pederast. In New York he’d absconded with the son of an upholsterer and had these days taken the name of his own deceased brother, Adam Oliver, to avoid further entanglement. In the company of grown men, he was a valuable asset.
Finally, they were joined by a half-breed of Westman’s called Tom. He wore a pin-striped jacket over a beaded shirt. A ragged, dust-spewing top-hat capping sleek, long, pitch-black hair that went to the middle of his back. Feathers on his cuffs. He spoke English fluently, as well as several heathen tongues including Spanish, but he communicated for the most part in snarling grunts. Part specter, the man never slept save for brief naps with his eyes open and his hand white-knuckled on his tomahawk.
“The morning commands us roadward,” Were the first words Tom said to them upon their gathering. Every word like lethal discharge, syllables flashing out of his muzzle succinct and powerful. He stared a thousand miles west. “See our things made ready and stock collected from the livery.” Sam and the apely Geoff made to gather their horses and two head of cattle. Adam set right the wagon, ensuring adequate stowage of and recording meticulously the commissioned contents within a leather-bound journal of his own providing. Within the hour the goods were stayed securely and the animals brought and their stomachs did somersaults in anticipation. Only Tom had made West before, for Pikes Peak and even points beyond.
“What’n you estimate of this half-savage, Mr Oliver?” Sam asked a few hours in, and well out of Tom’s earshot. They rode ahead of the wagon on horseback, alternating swigs from Mr Oliver’s flask.
“That he is a man of some dark portension, I have no doubt,” The rifleman said. “In his mind I fear the destruction of our fellowship serves as material for masturbation. He is the devil, quite possibly.”
“Hmm, and’n even holdin’ that opinion you’d yet brave the unorganized territories while’n his company, if not’n his care? Suicidal folly, it’n sounds, Sir. No offense intended,” Sam chuckled.
Weeks passed uneventfully. A thousand miles of plain fell forgettably behind them. June ended, and July turned them all brown, and Tom nearly black. The river twisted, always on their right. They were intended for Santa Fe, to a point near Cherry Creek where the trail would bend north and turn into the mountains. The passage could be completed no later than the first morning of September. These were trunks full of medicinal concoctions. The men’s main preliminary screening had consisted of a serious of measured calisthenics and a detailed personal history administered under a truth serum of Tom’s brewing. It tasted like whiskey left in the fire overnight.
“Are you, or have you ever been, possessed by visions? Or made to suffer disembodied voices or felt the touch of hands unseen?” The Indian had asked.
“Mister, you’n speak to a man of some consistency in a healthy mental pattern,” Had been Sam’s reply. The next morning he experienced trouble with acids creeping up his esophagus, and he’d eaten a pound of dandelions and clay before he came to his senses. The heartburn subsided, at least.
They hit Cherry Creek July the twelfth, and posted the wagon and stock before taking a room on Tom’s dollar. They washed for the first time since Independence, and had dinner indoors. Tom did not join them. They sat around the table cradling their bowls and plates between their elbows like prisoners. Until the food was all eaten, none of the three spoke. Then they had beer.
“I saw the savage eat a frog last night,” Geoff reported. “Right from the edge of the trail, after we’d settled in. Scooped it up like a feral thing and–” He plucked an imaginary frog from the table and shoved it in his beard-hole.
“Don’t doubt it,” Sam agreed.
“Our very selves in his hands, the savage seems not to descend into madness but rather languishes there, revels in his dirt-eating, moon-worshiping perversions and likely intends us utilized as live sacrifice to some feathery serpent,” Mr Oliver said, offering his best explanation.
“Then what do you’n propose, Mr Oliver?” Sam asked.
“My deduction is that the attack will not occur until we’ve left the main trail,” He said. “Not merely Santa Fe, but the mountain passage, as well, when we diverge before Fort Barnes. The ritual murder of white men by mountain devils is business even the untamed know to conduct off beaten path, so it will be upon the final leg of our journey, where the bastard’s guidance would become of absolute necessity, that he will finally and with deathly consequence betray us. Further, I’d deduct that no man can determine the patterns of weather in these places so near the peaks, so we leave to chance that perhaps rain washes out a stretch, or swells a river too wide for crossing, and delays us. At best, it stands that we have perhaps ten days to live if the whore-son’s designs are left to flourish.”
“So you’n prefer abandonment of all duty? Or just dismantling allegiances bearing the prospect of serving in our afterlives as voodoo device?” Sam asked.
“The savage obviously responded to a different work order than the three of us. He’s been shepherd to us across the plains. He ventures not, but rather returns from whence. Breaking his allegiance would be penultimate to terminating our contract with the owner of the cargo, his Mr Westman. We’d have no leave from pursuance, in either event. I have no doubt,” Parched, Mr Oliver poured beer down his throat and went on. “So then, at a loss for options, let us examine our lone advantage: We are not blinded to the savage’s treachery. We know when: After our departure from the mountain passage and before we reach Red Junction. We can speculate as to how; with a pack of snarling heathens. And we can be left only to guard our throats and stay awake in consummate diligence.”
“We’n just wait?”
“The cargo would be valuable in San Fe if we shed him tonight,” Geoff said and pulled himself conspiratorially nearer the table.
“Your death warrant,” Oliver said. “Word of Rex Westman is of a nebulous reach, shadowy minions strangling men in their tents far south as Texas. Trap set, there is no escape from this web which I can see, but to wait until provoked such that no man could argue against our motive, nor flinch nor as much as mention the disposal of his bought heathen.”
“So we stagnate till time as the hatchet rises and pray we aren’t flat of foot? Fuck that plan,” Geoff differed.
“No, we sentry every moment till that hatchet is lifted, so when it drops it does so because its wielder did first,” Oliver said and waggled his finger academically at the mess of fur which was Geoff’s face. “And Christ, Geoff, have yourself shaved. There’s horse semen in your beard.” Geoff stuck his fuzzy-knuckled fingers into his beard, but found only the remnants of recent supper; carrots and gravy, primarily.
“Fuck you, queer,” Geoff stood and said. “When time comes as I have the opportunity to make haste out of this fucking snare you take it advised that I will.” He shoved his chair in, stomped across the plank floor and headed upstairs for his room. Sam and Mr Oliver sat quiet for just a moment.
“I can’t say I’m in total disagree’n with Mr Geoff, Mr Oliver,” Sam said.
“Neither of you should be forced to cogitate.”
“I know what’n that means, friend, and I think I’ll join our colleague in contempt of your…contempt!” Sam spit his words out and left. Mr Oliver stayed and drank.
The next day came and no one got killed. As far as anyone had witnessed, no frogs were harmed. The mountains loomed two days west, and nothing but Cherry Creek behind them for three hundred miles. The ruts in the trail became shallower over the hours. The oxygen scarcer, too. They made camp after a light day of travel, to be followed by another truncated day of march, followed by the ascent. They all four sat around the fire that night, each of them a rabbit caught by Tom and spiked on the spit.
“Men, I offer these beings for your consumption so that you are strong for the climb, and in exchange for trust,” Tom spoke—part preacher; half-tamed. “You men whisper of my treachery while crafting your own. I am a forward man, and I see well, hear better, and if you wish leave us do so before we breach the mountainous places morning after next. So just is your savage that he gives meat and time for consideration, even when you weigh his assassination.”
“Huh? I’n not been privy to your visions, Chief,” Sam said. “We are all men of duty here’n.”
“Eat, men,” Tom said, and he stood and went into the night.
“He’s a fucking demon,” Geoff said first, and quietly, close to the fire.
“These heathens, being in the company of wraiths and spirits nigh perpetually during conveyance of their worship, often employ them for reconnaissance against their would-be victims,” Mr Oliver whispered. “Have no question he hears even the quietest of thoughts in your skull.”
“You maintain your’n position then, regardin’ our present repose, Sir Oliver?” Sam asked, another whisper through the fire.
“Staunchly. He stands ready if not eager. Our blood is ether for him,” Oliver held an imaginary rag to his face and caricatured intoxication. “Hacked apart tonight, limbs and entrails scattered, his hands would creep as arachnids out of the shallow graves, make chase and wring our necks before the first snow. We can only go on till the trap springs.”
“I think you’re a cocksucker,” Geoff got up from the fire and went to where his bed was rolled. After awhile, Mr Oliver leaned in again to Sam:
“I sometimes wonder if Tom Savage is the lone perpetrator of our murders,” He whispered close to Sam’s cheek and Sam could smell the rabbit breathed upon him. “You fasten to my meaning?”
“If you’n ask if I understand you, I answer affirmatively,” Sam chewed at a bone and spoke. “Meaning being you’n suspect the ape of being in league with’n the demon, and partner’n our execution.”
“He dost protest, but sleep never eludes the brute. Many weeks have sailed since I slept soundly for even a fraction of minutia. His snoring rivals thunder off the mountain.”
“Well’n then get some sleep, Sir,” Sam advised. “You’ve said the savage’ll act not till we’n left the passage, and your’n arousing my own suspicions as’n the identity of person’s deranged. The ape is a moody cunt, but I deem him without’n faculties for deception.” Mr Oliver laughed.
“This once you could be perceptive beyond your means, Samwell,” He stood and patted Sam’s shoulder as he took leave. “To question your expertise in dissecting the ape mind is folly, most certain. Good night, Sam.”
“Night, Sir Oliver,” Sam poured the stew pot over the fire and it hissed. He slept uninterrupted till after daybreak, and even Mr Oliver had rested to refreshment by the time they broke camp.
They resumed travel, and another day’s uninterrupted march would find them at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. During the day, Savage Tom Savage twice performed ritualized footwork in the dirt to appease his Gods and ward off unfavorable weather. By all accounts, the Gods deemed his dances sufficient and the sky remained unblemished blue from edge to edge and corner to corner.
“On the mountain, men may find bear and cougars.,” Savage Tom Savage said.
“Stay near wagon if bear comes,” He also said. “Cougar too.”
There were no bears nor cougars to mention the remainder of the day. They stopped early, having made the final day’s crossing and set their final camp with the mountains one on side and the flat prairie on the other. From this vantage they surveyed far as Kansas while the sun set behind them. They made fire, and Tom again brought and roasted rabbits for them.
“For two nights, rather than murder you sleeping I feed you the succulent meat of prairie rabbit,” He urged them. “Two months we travel and not even a failed attempt on your life.”
“I forgot to refill my tobacco supply’n Cheery Creek, Tom. Reckon you’n have to spare?” Sam asked.
“In my satchel, Sam. Pleased if you help yourself,” Said the Polite Savage. “I leave you men to eat.” And he was into the night again, led away by preternatural heathen instincts the other men could scarcely fathom. The three white men sat quiet while they ate.
“We as men of civility even fatten our hogs for a more abundant feast,” Said Mr Oliver to break the silence. Sam spat a dark wad of greasy rabbit thigh into the fire.
“You’n think he’s poisoned us?” Sam’s pitch was high and his pace was rapid. “We wait’n now for our anals to bleed and our’n guts to knot or our selves rot’n from inside? And what else?”
“Calm down and shut the fuck up, eat your bunny,” Geoff suggested. “Quit fuckin’ with him.” He nodded at Oliver.
“I’d never. Not with your mother’s cunt, Ape,” Oliver spoke and the ape reached across the licking flames and grabbed him by the collar. The ape was on his feet and lifted Oliver from his seat, into the fire. His boots caught flame and snuffed, caught flame and snuffed, as he maintained tenuous contact with the ground.
“And now you’ll pay,” Growled the Ape Man. He smashed his fist into Oliver’s nose while never releasing his jacket. Blood sizzled in the fire. “You fucking molesting fuck.” He clubbed him again, this time on the cheek below his left eye, and he lost his grip on the collar. Oliver fell ass backward, into dirt and out of the fire. His nose leaked, and his eye was hard swollen shut. His limbs stiffened and he made a noise from deep in his throat and he exhaled, unconscious. Geoff took a knee beside him and drew from his belt the pistol he’d been provided. He cocked it and set the barrel against Oliver’s swollen cheek, just below the broken eye. “Motherfucking demented, soul full of shit, fuck you and your cocksucker’s tongue–”
“Ape you ain’t ought’n to kill him!” Sam fumbled and jingled with his own borrowed pistol. “Let savagery be dispensed by Tom Savage and not his’n work done by our hands!” A shot rang out, the report flighting against the mountain and echoing back, again and again into their newfound and utter silence. All of them sat in the quiet till it was fatter than any heathen sacrifice.
“Tonight is final night white men camp with Tom,” The darkness said, only after the echo dissipated entirely. “Kill each other tomorrow night.” They didn’t hear his footsteps to know if he departed or lingered in the shadows.